Arabic Language Update: I did it! (Almost)

 
My Beeminder accountability graph showing how I reached my goal for a study challenge in June

My Beeminder accountability graph showing how I reached my goal for a study challenge in June

 

Just a short post as I'm off away on an intensive language course for most of the next three months. This is the programme run by Middlebury College, but held in Oakland, California (USA) at Mills College. I was extremely lucky to win a Kathryn Davis Fellowship which covers the costs of the course and food and accommodation while I'm there. I have a BA degree in Arabic and Farsi from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, but 10 years in Afghanistan spent writing books and studying Dari and Pashto meant that my Arabic has atrophied considerably. I thought it was time to resurrect those old skills, in part as a way of deepening my understanding of some of the religious aspects of the Afghan Taliban and in part -- let's be honest here -- as a way of covering my bases prior to Afghanistan completely falling off the map a few months from now.

I'll be writing a much longer post on how to get a high-beginner-to-mid-intermediate level out of the well-known "intermediate language plateau" after the course finishes, specifically focusing on what resources are available to Arabic-language students who have good basic skills but want to go beyond that to more advanced materials. (Read these three posts for more on getting out of language plateaus in general terms.)

The Middlebury course caters to various levels of language ability, and since I didn't want to waste the opportunity just revising things I had already learnt at university, I had to do a good deal of preparatory work these past few months. I started getting serious about this preparation in February. This involved over 75 hours of spoken/conversation practice (and some grammar work) with a number of different native Arabic speakers over Skype (lessons made possible through iTalki.com), as well as a lot of reading and listening. In June, as you can see on the Beeminder graph displayed above, I challenged myself to get 100 hours of exposure to the Arabic language over a period of 30 days; this included some iTalki lessons, but was also a lot of listening to Arabic-language podcasts, time spent writing on lang-8 and lots of time spent doing so-called "extensive reading" (much more to follow on that in August/September). I managed 99.5 hours, in total, just short of the total required to successfully complete the challenge I'd set myself, but enough to really make my language proficiency come along in leaps and bounds.

An additional note to those who would like to get in touch with me during this period: as part of the Middlebury course, they expect participants to take a language pledge where you only speak the language of study (i.e. Arabic for me) for the duration of the period of study. Read more here. For non-Arabic speakers, if you want to get in touch with me, please visit Google Translate and translate your message into Arabic there before copying the full text and pasting that into the email. It's not perfect, but it allows me to continue to stay connected with the world without violating the language pledge. If I reply, I'll be doing that in Arabic, too, so you'll have to copy the text back into Google Translate to get a sense of what I replied.

I'll be away on the course until the end of August, and will thus ignore all non-essential email until then. If you write to me in English, I will also ignore your email until September. Thank you.

How I use Goodreads to pick what I read

So far this year, I have read 35 books. I'm trying something new for 2015 so I thought I'd write up the outline in case someone else finds it useful. As I wrote at the end of last year, I'll be reading 150 books over the course of 2015. That's fifty books more than I read in 2014. The point of it is to expose myself to lots of different ideas, different styles, different perspectives. I've found that 150 probably isn't an impossible amount to be reading (less than three a week) and I really relish brushing up against interesting authors and ideas.

I've used Goodreads as a way of tracking what I read for a long time now. I'm lucky enough to have an interesting group of 'friends' who also use it (more or less regularly) so there's usually a decent amount of new or niche books that I discover that way. I also use it as a way of noting down the books I want to read in the future. (Incidentally, I've never really had a problem in finding something new to read. The list of books I want to read will always be larger than the time I have to read them. That's just life.)

Goodreads offers a 'list' function whereby you can not only state that you 'want to read' a book, but where you can categorise things to your heart's content. Each year I set up a list ("2015toread" and so on) so I can see which books I think I'm more motivated to read that year. I'll usually take 5 or 10 minutes each weak checking over the list to make sure the things I added to the list are actually things I still want to read (versus things I added in the heat of a moment, after reading a particularly persuasive review, for example, but which I probably don't need to spend my time on).

Previously, I was generally following my gut with what I wanted to read next. Unfortunately, this often meant I went with the easiest option, or the path of least resistance. Long books (weighty histories, or more abstruse theoretical texts) would be passed up for the latest *it* novel or someone's entirely forgettable memoir about their time in Afghanistan that I'll feel obliged to read.

This year I've been trying a different approach. Goodreads allows you to sort lists by various bits of metadata attached to each book (author name, date added etc) but you can also sort by "average rating". This is the average rating given to a particular book by the entire Goodreads user base (20+ million users). You can see how this pans out in my current set of 'up next' books:

 
 

This "average rating" isn't in any way a guarantee of anything resembling quality. It's not that hard for authors to game the system, and books with few reviews (common for niche subjects like Afghanistan or Islam) have either really high or low ratings. But I'm finding this approach brings me to read far more books outside my path-of-least-resistance choices and often brings me into contact with some real gems.

Needless to say, this method of discovery is only a little better than putting all the names in a hat and picking one at random, but I am still finding some benefit. It does mess with my desire to read fewer male authors (you'll note in the picture above that only book number seven is by a woman; the rest are men) but everything in life is a tradeoff of some sort, I suppose.

Let me know if you find some use to this or if you have any other ways you pick what books to read next.

Apocalypse Then: a short review of Filiu's 'Apocalypse in Islam' (2011)

 
 

An enjoyable account of the idea of apocalypse in Islamic discourse, from the Qur'an all the way up until 2011. Filiu gathered together a huge melange of written sources on the apocalypse and he presents an overview of how differing conceptions have been cultivated by Sunnis / Shi'is over time. There is a slight bias in that most of the sources are in Arabic, and his focus is, broadly, the Middle East so South Asia is not particularly part of this story at all, not to mention East Asia proper which gets nary a mention.

I was almost completely ignorant of much of the developments detailed in the book, perhaps because I've focused more on South Asia in my own research/work. Indeed, I finished the book with a question on my mind as to why Afghanistan seems not to have the same obsession with ideas of the apocalypse as Filiu is suggesting is present in the Middle East. Perhaps it has something to do with Deobandism, though I'm not really sure of that... something to look into.

One other detraction: this is a historiography of transmitted ideas, but mostly of those written down. Filiu has lived for a long time in the Middle East (mostly in Syria, if I'm not mistaken) but you don't really get much sense of this in the book, nor of how all the books and ideas he discusses were received by actual people. Instead, there's a dialogue among authors and publishers -- a fascinating one, at that -- but I was left with the sense that something was missing.

Filiu tells of the construction of the idea of apocalypse, how circumstance and context contributed to the development of the ideas. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking in that: the events of a particular age shape the way ideas are framed. But the details of how publishers saw a market in apocalyptic literature were fascinating to read. Similarly, it was interesting to see how Shi'i interpretations seem to have followed a fairly different (though parallel) track of development.

The book has the really helpful feature of one-or-two-page summaries at the end of each chapter to help remind you of the overall argument that was covered. All-in-all a really clear presentation from Filiu of his ideas/argument.

Some other things I learnt while reading: (helped out by quotes from the book)

  • "The Qur'an has rather little to say about the end of the world, and still less about the omens of the Last Hour, whose prediction and description later came to be based on prophetic reports." (28)
  • "The apocalyptic narrative was decisively influenced by the conflicts that filled Islam's early years, campaigns of jihad against the Byzantine Empire and recurrent civil wars among Muslims" (28)

After page 70, the book gets into the post-1979 world, looking at three events that really spurred the development of apocalyptic ideas: the Siege of Mecca, the Iranian Revolution and the arrival of Soviet troops into Afghanistan. I hadn't realised, for example, that the war in Afghanistan was one factor that spurred the 1982 Hama uprising as their spiritual leader saw in it "certain signs of the Hour" (81). The book is filled with many such fascinating asides.

Covering the 1990s, Filiu shows how ideas from Christian messianism start to creep into the books being written about apocalypse in the Middle East, also including things like UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. This is when he also starts detailing how certain publishers and authors become factories for apocalypse literature, churning out books to satiate an eager audience.

All this is further accelerated by 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with more intermingling of sources and ideas. Filiu also chronicles how certain Islamic orthodox establishment figures (and their state sponsors) sought to play down apocalypse narratives. Interestingly, he shows how it wasn't really a significant theme for al-Qaeda either, at least not for its senior ideologues or leadership.

You can see how prescient Filiu was in reading the apocalyptic tea leaves when you get to the end of the book. Remember, he was writing this in 2007/2008 (when it was published in French), but he concludes by speculating that a merger of jihadism with messianism was probably due and that the mutation would be particularly difficult to manage:

"No inevitability pushes humanity in the direction of catastrophe, even if the popular fascination with disaster may seem somehow to favor a sudden leap into mass horror. And yet, coming after the gold of the Euphrates, widely interpreted in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq as a sign of the Hour, a fire in Hijaz may be all that is needed to set in motion a new cycle of eschatological tension, inaugurating an age of widespread fear and expectation that the end of the world is at hand. If an inflammatory and incandescent event of this sort were to occur, the chance that global jihad might undergo an apocalyptic mutation would give grounds for genuine apprehension." (193)

Anyway, for all the detractions mentioned above, this was a quick and fun read that gets you up to speed on thoughts about the apocalypse in the Islamicate world. Recommended, if this sort of thing gets you excited...

North Waziristan: A Reading List

 
Technically, this is South Waziristan... Photo credit: Drregor (via Flickr)

Technically, this is South Waziristan... Photo credit: Drregor (via Flickr)

 

I've been doing a bit of reading about North Waziristan in the English-language sources that are available outside Pakistan. It took a bit of time to put together a decent collection that gave real information. By 'real information', I mean things that speak of names, dates, places and events. I wasn't really interested in analysis, though that forms part of what follows. I was interested in the basic factual building blocks that must precede any analysis or understanding of a place. (That, and actually going there yourself). Most of these sources have are filled with stories and little details, all of which need triangulating with one another and with interviews on the ground.

I can't vouch for the veracity of any of it -- my experience in Afghanistan has given me an innate distrust for anything I read in a report, particularly if it was assembled outside the country -- yet this is what we have. There are, of course, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of news articles in the databases of Pakistan's media outlets, but I didn't trawl those yet. Needless to say, this is a work in progress and I will continue to update as and when I read more. It seems the area is also missing a well-sourced chronology akin to something like what I did for Kandahar or for the Taliban/Al-Qaeda relationship. I don't have the time at the moment to do this myself, but perhaps someone will be inspired to work on it. If you have any suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.

Books (Core)

Books (Supplementary / Tangential)

Reports

Articles

Websites

UPDATE: This continues to be added to as recommendations come in from various places here and there. (Last Update: January 3, 2015)

Some Books and Other Things from 2014

 
 

I have read 117 books so far this year. I think there are another five still likely to happen before the end of the month. Goodreads tells me that amounts to 28,616 pages or an average of roughly 80 pages per day. Seems like a lot, but it didn't feel that way. I set my goal for the year at 100 and it was consciously a very high number, almost unrealistically so. But in the end I never felt rushed, nor did it feel like a chore. As a result, next year I'm going to notch it up to 150. I enjoy reading books more than I fear the very occasional sense of pressure when I get behind on my reading. Beeminder has helped keep me honest and on track when it comes to my reading goals.

 
My Beeminder chart c. late November. I disabled it after I hit the 100 mark...

My Beeminder chart c. late November. I disabled it after I hit the 100 mark...

 

The breakdown of fiction:non-fiction in the books I read this year was pretty low (1:9 approx) but the gender balance was about 4:6 female-male, which isn't bad considering I was only side-glancing at that proportion as the year went on. For 2015, I will be consciously making sure to get more fiction in my reading diet, hopefully by as much as one-third or two-fifths of the total.

The only fiction book this year that really blew me away was Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Imagine a cross between J.M. Coetzee, Barbara Kingsolver and A.M. Homes. That's sort of what this book is, but to try to pre-introduce you to the plot or premise would do you a disservice. I'd strongly advise you not to read any reviews, comments or synopses of the book -- even the one written by the publisher. Just go read it. It's not only extremely moving, but it will also make you think.

I read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams much earlier this year, and it made me think about essay writing afresh. The book is a collection of pieces examining the idea of empathy from different vantage points. The showstopper first essay (from which the collection takes its name) was originally published in The Believer. You can read it here. I suspect after reading that you'll go and get the book. Her essays combine the confessional with the abstract and overthought. It's a very attractive mix, and, with the exception of one or two pieces, the book is compulsively readable.

The second non-fiction book that, really, everyone should go read right now is by my friend and colleague, Anand Gopal. No Good Men Among The Living covers the conflict in Afghanistan through the voices and perspectives of three Afghans -- one man who ends up fighting for the Taliban, a urban-educated woman who ends up in Uruzgan province, and a US-backed military strongman. Just for starters, it's refreshing to read something in which the author doesn't insert him or herself into the narrative like a sore thumb. It's sad that has to be said, but this is the exception not the rule these days. Anand dismantles the evidence surrounding the resurgence of the Taliban post-2001 and what he finds -- I'll let you follow him down that path -- is extremely disturbing if not entirely unexpected. This book is certainly one of the best things written about post-2001 Afghanistan and given the amount of energy and money that has been spent, it's worth taking the time to consider what worked and what didn't.

For some books, as you near the end you speed up as the plot comes to its inevitable conclusion, eager to find out how the story ends. For others, you slow down, not only because the themes of the book have started to intertwine around and in between one another, but also because you realise that soon this book will come to an end and this companion of the past few hours or days will start becoming but a memory. Rohini Mohan's The Seasons of Trouble:  Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War is a superb book. I can hardly imagine how the author managed to put it together. It reads like a novel yet feels so immediate as well. Mohan takes a similar approach to Anand, removing herself completely from the story and choosing instead to focus on the stories of three individuals who were caught up in Sri Lanka's unfolding civil conflict. I had read Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost in the past, but wasn't left with a very strong sense of Sri Lanka or its history. With this book, I feel I've learnt a lot. Mohan writes beautifully and the book has a strong narrative drive, such that I was up into the early hours of the morning finishing it. Just take my word for it. Buy this book. Read it. Thank me later. You'll be better off having read it.

Not everything in life is civil war and strife, though. This year I've been reconnecting with my body in various ways: by reading, through gymnastics classes and by working on my free-standing handstand. In this vein, I really connected with two books. Katy Bowman's Move Your DNA approaches movement from a bio-mechanical perspective (hinges, joints, and how the body works together as a system). Once you've read it, you can't think about your body and/or how you move it the same way again. The book introduces the idea of "diseases of captivity", which is to say, diseases brought about because of biomechanically skewed or minimised movement patterns. It's a really interesting concept, and as you read you'll find yourself sufficiently freaked out ever few pages to get up, check your posture, check your feet alignment and/or go for a walk. Unfortunately, Bowman doesn't always write in the clearest manner. Part of the premise of the book is that modern people have lost touch with their bodies (how to feel, how to describe, how to move) so I was hoping she would have found a language that would allow us alienated masses to better reconnect. That said, this is a great starting place. I could have done with a book with a thousand videos for each of the exercises she describes (and 3D interactive diagrams for the anatomy lessons) but this is a minor quibble. I will have to learn all that in due course. Bowman also offers courses, which I imagine are excellent in that there is a good deal of hands-on and individual experiential aspects to this book that I didn't quite get just from a read-through. I'll be working on the exercises over the coming months (years?). Certainly one of the most interesting/challenging books I read this year.

Jill Miller's The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body addresses similar things as the Bowman book but from a highly practical standpoint. There is a lot of theory and anatomy explained, but the core of the text are hundreds of pages of beautifully illustrated exercises. Miller recommends rolling on somewhat-soft balls to release the fascia (basically, the connective tissue in the skin and muscles) throughout the body. If you haven't done something like this before, the first time is really instructive. As someone who spent a good part of the past decade sitting behind a computer or book, writing or researching, I can testify to the toll this has taken on my body. This book is a really excellent first step in moving away from that tension, dysfunction and inflexibility.

My movement journey wouldn't have been possible without an initial boost from the kind people of Gold Medal Bodies. They're all genuinely nice people and they have provided useful guidance and support in this project of reconnecting with my body that I mentioned earlier. I'd particularly like to thank Verity Bradford for the help she's been giving me over the past couple of months while I've been working on my free-standing handstand.

Finally, a few words about death and time. The past year has been full of confrontations with the passing of time and the inevitability of death. These confrontations have taken various shapes and forms and have been closer to home as well as further afield. This is always a useful reminder, I feel. I reread Seneca's essay On the Shortness of Life this year and that helped drive the message home. But it's easy to forget. To help with that, I'm really glad to have been using a MyTikker watch for the second half of the year. It's a little bit like that chart of a human life in weeks that did the rounds earlier this year. On the watch, one row of digits shows the current time, and the other two show a countdown (based on statistical estimates calculated using a questionnaire) of the time you have left in your life. Of course, things can always happen out of the blue. You can't do much to prevent that. But to push back against the passing of time, death works to jog the mind. So now, every time I look down to check the time, I'm reminded that time is passing, that our days are short.

[Read previous year-end posts here: 2013, 2012, and 2010.]

New book: An Educator's Tale

 
 

The publishing house that Felix Kuehn and I set up has two new books out. The first of these is called An Undesirable Element: An Afghan Memoir and it tells the story of Sharif Fayez, the man responsible for much of the progress seen in Afghan higher education since 2001. The book also includes a lot from the 1980s jihad and pre-Taliban periods where the author was forced to leave the country -- fleeing to Iran before heading for the United States. This is an extremely readable book, and the story has a fast pace to it.

It's important to keep these Afghan voices and Afghan narratives in mind whenever thinking about the country. Amidst the plethora of commentary on Afghanistan written by foreigners it is easy to forget that Afghans understand their country best. Multiple 'understandings' exist, to be sure, but a failure to privilege the lived experiences makes useful intervention and hamkari much harder.

But don't take my word for it. Here are some clever people writing about what they learned from Fayez's book:

"An Undesirable Element is a fascinating tour through the tumultuous years that helped create modern Afghanistan. Fayez survived Soviet Afghanistan and revolutionary Iran, only to find himself watching from exile as his country devoured itself. Improbably, he returns after 2001 to help resurrect Afghanistan's devastated higher education system, giving an insider account of the challenges of building education in a land dominated by warlords and fundamentalism. The result is a poignant reminder of how much Afghanistan has endured, and the flicker of hope that remains despite it all."

-- Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among The Living

"A compelling read, An Undesirable Element recounts an Afghanistan many have forgotten. It serves as a rallying cry to once again imagine all that country might be. It's a tale as extraordinary as the land from which it comes."

-- Elliot Ackerman, author of Green On Blue

"An Undesirable Element moves fast as flames and offers a luminous account of the last half century of Afghan conflicts and redevelopment. Trevithick's oral history of Sharif Fayez's story is a trove: from a kiss on the head by the Afghan former King Zahir Shah, Fayez's life intersected with the future leaders and quiet supporters of his country--both heroic and tyrannical--from Columbia University to a Post-revolutionary University in Mashad, Iran. Fayez is a modest but robust storyteller whose eventual position as Afghanistan's first Minister of Education after the Taliban is only one of the strange twists and turns his story offers. His deft handling in the rebuilding of Afghanistan should be read by anyone interested in how one can use patience and determination to bring hope to a country reduced to rubble."

-- Adam Klein, editor, The Gifts of The State: New Afghan Writing

"The term visionary tends to be misapplied to those who are merely headstrong. But it is a perfectly apt description for Sharif Fayez, the most important figure in education in 21st-century Afghanistan, yet one that history may have neglected without his memoir. Such an omission would have deprived future generations of Afghans from understanding how Fayez, perhaps more than any single person, created hope for the country’s young minds at the turn of the millennium and, in so doing, altered a nation's destiny."

-- Martin Kuz, freelance journalist

Links to purchase paperback and electronic copies here...

Note-Taking Jujitsu, Or How I Make Sense Of What I Read

Note-taking is a problem. It's an interesting problem, but still a problem. Many people have switched over from paper books to digital copies. I am certainly one of the early adopters in this trend, having wrangled Graeme Smith and his sister into facilitating a first iteration of Amazon's Kindle to be delivered to my house in Kandahar.

My colleague Felix Kuehn and I used Kindle versions of books heavily in our research for An Enemy We Created. Using those references in footnotes was difficult at the time: the format was so new that established footnoting styles (APA/Chicago etc) hadn’t developed the standards for referencing kindle documents. All this was made harder by the fact that Kindle copies of books added a whole new problem into the mix by abandoning page numbers for ‘Kindle location numbers’. This changed a few years later, and current users probably won’t have this problem, but if you go look at the footnotes for An Enemy We Created, you’ll still find that many, if not most, of the references are to Kindle locations and not page numbers. In fact, I think our book was probably the first serious history work to rely so extensively on digital Kindle references in the footnotes; I remember having discussions with our publisher about it.

 
 

All this isn’t to say paper copies don't have their uses. But some books just aren't available in digital format. I'll get into the workaround for that later. The best way to make this less of a problem is to gently nudge publishers to issue their books on a kindle format.1 But I am already getting off track.

All this seemed to come to a head this past week, where a podcast I hosted together with Matt Trevithick took up the topic of notes and note-taking. Mark Bernstein, our guest on the show, wrote a really excellent book on the topic some years ago entitled The Tinderbox Way. I’d strongly recommend you read if you’re involved in knowledge work in any way. Here’s a short excerpt defining the importance and use patterns for notes:

“Notes play three distinct roles in our daily work:

•Notes are records, reminding us of ideas and observations that we might otherwise forget.

•Shared notes are a medium, an efficient communication channel between colleagues and collaborators.

•Notes are a process for clarifying thinking and for refining inchoate ideas.

Understanding often emerges gradually from the accumulation of factual detail and from our growing comprehension of the relationships among isolated details. Only after examining the data, laying it out and handling it, can we feel comfortable in reaching complex decisions.”2

Later in the week, Maria Popova (of Brainpickings fame) was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast to talk about her website, her reading and her workflow. Both Tim and Maria expressed frustration over the lack of tools for people wanting to download and interact with their Kindle clippings:

“I highlight in the kindle app on the iPad, and then Amazon has this function that you can basically see your kindle notes on the desktop on your computer. I go to those, I copy them from that page, and I paste them into an Evernote file to have all my notes on a specific book in one place. But sometimes I will also take a screengrab of a kindle page with my highlighted passage, and then email that screengrab into my Evernote email, because Evernote has, as you know, Optical Character Recognition, so when I search within it, it’s also going to search the text in that image. I don’t have to wait till I’ve finished the book.

The formatting is kind of shitty in the kindle notes on the desktop(…) if you copy them, they paste into Evernote with this really weird formatting. (…) It’s awful. If you want to fix it you have to do it manually within Evernote. (…) There is no viable solution that I know.”3

She then goes on to some more detailed points of how this doesn’t work, and Tim commiserates, suggesting that maybe they should hire some people to fix this problem. But the good thing is that there are solutions. The problems Maria and Tim bemoan are things that every other Kindle user has had to deal with since day one, so thankfully there are a number of workarounds that simplify the process of reading, annotating and sifting within one’s notes of a book or document.4

So notes are important, we get that. But how do we use them to their utmost? How do we even gather them together and store them? How do we use them for our writing, for our thinking? These are all important questions which I don’t feel have been properly answered, and where those answers have been given, they’re buried or hidden somewhere out on the internet.

I want this post to get into the weeds about how to get your materials off a Kindle device, how to store it usefully on a Mac (my apologies, PC/Linux users), and how to repurpose those notes to be creative, to write, and to think.

This post has three parts:

  1. Storage
  2. Clipping & Splitting
  3. Discovery & Meaning

It will by necessity be an overview of some useful tools and options for researchers, but if you leave comments I can probably expand on individual points/sections in follow-up posts if needed.

1. Storage

This is a problem that wasn’t explicitly raised in the things that motivated this post, but it’s something I get asked frequently. Maria and Tim both seem to be avid Evernote users, and I know many others also use this, but there are other options. It’s worth starting here because the tools will determine what you can do with your notes.

I’ve offered advice to other Mac users on what software to use for research projects that require a certain deftness in handling large quantities of sometimes disparate materials. The same applies to people who are just trying to keep track of the things they read, trying to draw together connections, and to derive meaning from it all. I’ll get into the meaning-creation in the final section, but for the moment, let me briefly describe our four options for file/note storage as I see it.5

  1. Finder/PathFinder. This is the lowest-tech option. Basically, once you split your files up (see section two) you store them in folders and refer to them that way. I don’t find this option very attractive or useful, because it’s like a filing cabinet. Your ability to discover connections and to remember what’s in those folders is pretty limited. I don’t recommend this at all, but from conversations with other researchers and writers, it seems this is the default option.
  2. Evernote. I include this here because it’s part of a workflow that we’ll cover later on. Evernote is great for all the reasons you can read about on their site. It syncs across all your mobile and desktop devices, it OCRs images so you can search for text captured inside photos you upload into your library of notes.
  3. DevonThink. This is my default ‘bucket’ for information, documents and notes. You can read up on the many (MANY) things that DevonThink Pro Office or DTPO (the version you should get, if you’re getting this software) does. Not only does DTPO store your documents, but it allows you to access that information in a number of extremely useful formats. There is a mobile app, too, though it could do with a bit more work. The most interesting feature of DTPO is its search and discovery functionality (using some magic sauce algorithms). They don’t make as much of this on their website as they used to, but I’d strongly recommend you check out these two articles (one, and two) by Steve Berlin Johnson which explain a little of the wonderful things DevonThink can do for your notes. As with the next recommendation, it’s not cheap. But powerful doesn’t always come cheap. It’s a solid investment if you spend the time getting to know this piece of software.
  4. Tinderbox. I discussed this at some length on the Sources & Methods podcast with Mark Bernstein, so I’d recommend you listen to that as your first port of call. Tinderbox is not an everything-bucket in the way that Evernote and DevonThink are, and I use it slightly differently, but it’s a great place to actually do the work of thinking, organising and writing once you have something (i.e. a project of some sort) for which you want to use all your notes. I’ll explain more about this in section three.

I’d recommend getting to know the different bits of software to get a sense of what they can do. DevonThink has a handy section of their website where you can see how people use it in their work lives. Tinderbox has something similar, with some case studies of usage.

For DevonThink, it’s generally good to keep your ‘buckets’/databases of files separated by topic. I have a mix of these kinds of databases (50 in total): some are country-specific, some are project-specific (i.e. to contain the research that goes into a book or a long report), and some are topic-specific (i.e. I have one for clippings and notes relating to Mathematics, one for things relating to Cardiology etc). I’d also recommend you give Steve Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From a read, particularly chapter 4.

Given the learning curve with some aspects of the workflow that follows, you might want to consider introducing these pieces of software one-by-one, or as needed. That way you’re using only what you understand and can implement things without being too overwhelmed by the novelty of the systems. It took me years (almost a decade) to implement and iterate the systems described below, and I’m still not finished modifying as the tools change.

2. Clipping & Splitting

This section is all about getting materials off mobile devices and onto your computer where you can put them into some sort of overarching database.

Accessing Your Amazon Kindle Clippings

First let’s sort out how best to get notes from a kindle onto your Mac. Don’t use Amazon’s website. It’s going to create all sorts of problems for you in terms of formatting.

First thing’s first: sync your kindle to the cloud. Just turn on the wifi/3G and select the “Sync” option. This will ensure all your highlights are backed up to the cloud.

Then plug your Kindle into your computer via USB. Then go into the “Documents” folder, and search for a file called “My Clippings.txt”. If you’ve been using your kindle for a while, it’s probably going to be quite large. Nevertheless, copy that file to your desktop. Feel free to eject your Kindle from your laptop now. We won’t be needing it any more.

 

An example of what you might see when you open your "My Clippings.txt" file

 

If you open the txt file that is now saved to your desktop, you’ll find all your clippings and annotations preserved in a useful plaintext format. This may solve your problems straightaway, in which case, congratulations: you now have all your annotations in a useful format that you can use however you wish.

If you want to take it to the next level, though, you’ll want to split this file up. At the moment, you have a very large plaintext file which contains all your notes. You’re likely to have notes from a wide variety of topics and books in here, so it doesn’t make sense for you to keep them all in a single location. The ideal solution is for you to have a single file for every clipping, a single file for every annotation.6

This is where Split-ter.scpt comes in. I’m afraid I don’t know who to credit for this wonderful piece of code. I downloaded it somewhere on the internet some years back and can’t seem to find a link to the author either in the code or elsewhere online. (Whoever you are, thank you!)

This script works with another piece of software mentioned above — DevonThink Pro Office. For now, I’ll ask you to ignore that bit, and focus on what’s happening to the file. I use the script to convert our “My Clippings.txt” file into multiple files. It goes in, finds a delimiter (any piece of text or syntax that repeats itself in the original file) and creates a new note/file every time it comes across this delimiter. In this way, you’ll quite quickly from the file shown above to something like this:

Now you have a note for every annotation and/or clipping. This is then something you can dump into Evernote, or keep in DevonThink. Again, more about the difference between these programmes in the next section. (Note, that you can use Tinderbox to split up the “MyClippings.txt” file as well using the “Explode” tool).

UPDATE (a little later on Friday night): Seb Pearce has just let me know that there are other options available for dealing with the 'My Clippings.txt' file. Check them out on his site.

The second problem raised on the Tim Ferriss podcast was Amazon’s limitations for clippings. This differs from publisher to publisher, it seems, so there’s no way of predicting it. An unfortunate rule of thumb: the more useful the book, the more likely the publisher has locked it down. When you’re making clippings inside the book, Amazon gives you no notification that you’ve reached the book’s limitations. But when you go to check your “My Clippings.txt” file to start using your notes, then you may find the note says:

"<You have reached the clipping limit set by the publishers>"

All the work you’ve done selecting pieces of text are for nothing, it would seem. The publisher has prevented you from using your book.

One solution is to remove the DRM from the book before you put it on your kindle. This is legal so long as you’re not sharing the book with other people (as this process would theoretically allow you to do).7 Follow this link to find out how to de-DRM your Kindle and iBooks documents. You can also visit libgen.org to download an already-DRMed copy of the book you’ve purchased. These will often be in .epub format so you’ll have to convert these over to a .mobi format if you want to use them on your kindle device. (To convert from .epub to .mobi, use the free Calibre cross-platform software.)

If you read a de-DRMed copy of a kindle book on your kindle device, there will be no limitations as to how much you can annotate. The publishers limitations will all be gone. So that’s one option.

For those who aren’t comfortable removing the DRM on your books, you can get all your annotations out, but it comes with a little bit of hassle.

Here’s an example of what I mean (screenshot from my DevonThink library). I was reading in Hegghammer’s excellent Jihad in Saudi Arabia and making highlights (at 4:06am, apparently) but at some point I hit the limit imposed by the publisher.

 
 

The workaround to bypass this limit from the publisher is to first export all your notes out of your “MyClippings.txt” file. So all your clippings are saved, even though some of them may not work. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the final three notes aren’t working because of the publisher’s limitatations. That’s the case in the screenshot above. What you do is (again, once you’ve backed up the clippings txt file) delete three of the earlier clippings that you already have. Then you sync your Kindle to the server and it will think that you have clipped three less quotes, so these will then become available (both in the myclippings.txt file and on the website. Like I said, it’s a bit fiddly. I would much rather remove the DRM completely and not have this hassle at all, though when you do that Amazon will not sync your clippings to the cloud and to their kindle.amazon.com database. You’ll have to export them using the tools I mentioned above.

Keeping Up With The Joneses, or How to Use Instapaper to Clip Web Articles

This may be something completely idiosyncratic to my own workflow, but I don’t enjoy reading articles in a web browser. I’d also prefer not to be hijacked into reading all these articles. For instance, when I’m in Tweetbot/Twitter or Facebook and I see a link that I like, I will almost never read that article then and there. Rather, I’ll send it to my Instapaper queue.

First, a quick word about Instapaper vs Pocket. I use Instapaper. I started off with them, switched over to Pocket for about two years, and now I’m back with Instapaper. They’re both more or less the same. Instapaper happens to be what I’ve chosen for myself because of their handy Kindle service. (If you have articles in your queue, you can have Instapaper send the most recent articles to your Kindle at a particular time (i.e. first thing in the morning) which you can then clip and archive to your heart’s content.) Both Pocket and Instapaper work with what follows, so just pick one and stick to it. I’d recommend Instapaper because they allow for the sharing of the full texts of articles and because of the Kindle digest feature.

I find I have so much to stay on top of and keep tracking online, I can’t just click around and read things as and when I see them online. I schedule time apart for reading of my Instapaper queue (and for reading books on my Kindle) and only read during those times. (I do the same with email, only checking and responding to email between the hours of 12-1pm and 5-6pm each day. The rest of the day email is off and disabled. I even deleted my email account on my iPhone as inspired by this medium.com post.)

My workflow with web articles is to follow as much as possible via RSS. I prune the sites I’m following every three months, but in general the number is stable around 650. I use Newsblur as my RSS reader, and every time I find an article I’d like to read (later), I use the handy ‘send to instapaper’ bookmarklet. This sends the article to my Instapaper queue.

The same goes for twitter. I follow enough people on Twitter for it to be impossible for me to read every post that passes through my stream. I will dip once or twice a day, however, to see what people are saying. I use two services to monitor my Twitter and Facebook streams to pick out the most-shared articles to ensure that I don’t miss the big sharks of the day. They’re both free, and I’d strongly recommend you signing up and getting their daily summaries of what people were talking about on Twitter that day. News.me has been around for a while and I trust their article selection. Nuzzel is newer, but it seems to have a few more options. I guess you could probably do with picking only one of the two.

After reading articles on my Kindle (or sometimes on a mobile device like my iPad or iPhone), you can clip the article if you want to save it (just like making a clipping inside a book, only the entire article is saved).

 

This is what you see in an article when you click to "Clip This Article" on a kindle...

 

Then your clippings will be captured in the ‘MyClippings.txt’ file as explained above and you can export them directly to DevonThink or Evernote or Tinderbox. (The main downside to doing things this way is that when the kindle clips it, all formatting is lost (including paragraph breaks)).

Alternatively, you can ‘Favourite’ the article. I use this setting because it then sends the article and URL to my @stricklinks twitter account, something I created to share the best things I was reading. It also saves the full text of the article to Pinboard (a service I’ve already written about on my blog here) and to Evernote. (I use If This Then That to facilitate this.)

Once I’m done reading, I can go into Evernote and all my articles are waiting for me to be sorted through. Because I use DevonThink as my everything-bucket, and because all the sorting and discoverability features are there, I have a separate stage of exporting my notes out of Evernote into DevonThink. I’ve already probably taken you a little too far down the rabbit-hole of my workflow, but this is an important stage because otherwise you can’t do anything with your notes.

Luckily, someone has written a script which makes this possible. Many many thanks to the good people at Veritrope for updating the script every time updates to the software get released. It’s fairly self-explanatory. You select the notes that you want to export, choose which DevonThink folder you want to export to and then it goes to work. It can occasionally be buggy and stop half-way through, but usually a little trial-and-error will let you pinpoint which Evernote note is causing the problem and you can transport that one over manually.

I usually do an export session to bring everything from Evernote into my DevonThink inbox once a week. This way the number of clippings doesn’t get too out of control, and I’m not constantly playing around with this during the week. You might find this all is overkill, but it has become an essential part of my workflow to store the various things I’m reading on a daily basis.

Pillaging Your Hard Copies, AKA Living the Paperless Dream

You may have hardcover copies of books that you want to use as part of this system. One way to use them is to scan the books into your DevonThink library. DevonThink Pro Office comes with an OCR package (via ABBYY FineReader) so whatever you scan can then become searchable and useful.

In the past, particularly with books I’ve purchased in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are unlikely (read: never) to be made available as electronic versions, I take a Stanley knife to the bindings, feed the pages into my ScanSnap scanner which scans both sides and compiles all the scans into a single PDF document that is searchable on my laptop. The whole process is destructive of the book, but it gives the text inside a new life. Given how fast the new ScanSnap models work (around 25 pages per minute, both sides), this is an attractive way to get digital access to materials that are only available in paper form.

You can highlight text within the resulting PDFs and then later export your clippings from those PDFs as notes into DevonThink. There’s another useful script to help with that. It only works with the free Skim PDF reader, but that’s my default PDF reader so it works out well.

For more on paperless workflows, check out David Sparks’ Field Guide on the topic.

3. Discovery & Meaning

If you made it this far, congratulations. This is the section where all the fiddling with export starts to take on some meaning. After all, we’re not reading and exporting these notes purely because we are hoarders or to fetishise the art of collection (though in some cases, that may be what’s going on). No, we are taking notes because we are trying to understand difficult topics, because we are trying to solve important problems.

Discovering Links and Connections

The Steve Berlin Johnson articles referenced earlier are an essential first stop, particularly in demonstrating how DevonThink can add some serendipity into how you use your individual notes. To give you an example of how this works, here’s a screenshot from my ‘TalQaeda’ database that I put together while working on An Enemy We Created:

 
 

In the upper part you can see a bunch of notes relating to the Haqqani family. The lower left part is the contents of a note (Note: exported from Instapaper). The bottom right list of documents (under “See Also”) is a list of notes that may be related to this particular quote. This is the magic algorithmic sauce I mentioned earlier that makes DevonThink so powerful.

If I click through to some of those suggested notes, I’m taken to similar quotes on the same topics, two PDFs of reports (of dubious analytic value, but that’s a separate issue), three clippings from Kindle books where people are making reference to the relationship between the Haqqanis and al-Qaeda (the subject of the original note). Note that I didn’t have to pre-tag documents for this ‘see also’ functionality to work its magic. It analyses inside the text and makes its suggestions based on the similarities it identifies. (Needless to say, it’s not simply a matter of matching individual words. Some of the suggested notes don’t mention al-Qaeda or the Haqqanis by name, but they are implied; DevonThink catches this all).

Once you start to build up a decent database of notes (my Afghanistan database has just under 65 million words of notes, including 12,800+ PDFs) this ‘See Also’ functionality really allows for some unexpected links to be made, especially when you’re at the stage of writing up a project/book. One note will lead to another note, which will lead to another note. If you follow these trails of notes (like breadcrumbs) you can develop a pretty idiosyncratic picture.

I do not know of a manual method which allows for this kind of process.

DevonThink has an extremely robust search function which allows you to find things along similar principles (including a very useful ‘fuzzy spelling’ option, perfect when checking my database for notes on someone whose first name could be spelt Mohammad, Muhammad, Mohammed or any of the other variations).

Figuring Out What It All Means

Once you have an idea of the outlines of the topic, once you’ve been taking notes for a while, your database in DevonThink is probably starting to fill with useful information.

If you’re writing a book, though, you’ll want to start writing alongside this gathering process. (Check out Michael Lopp’s overview of the process of writing a large research book, which, to my mind, is fairly accurate.)

I don’t find DevonThink a particularly pleasant place to write, so I do that elsewhere. Before I write things out in long form, I usually do some outlining, particularly if it’s something where the dense collection of factual detail is important to the development of the argument (as was the case with An Enemy We Created). For this, I find Tinderbox indispensable for working up an overview of what I know, for figuring out how I’m going to structure it, and for helping me put together my first draft.

Tinderbox can display notes in a number of different ways. You can view your documents as outlines, as maps, or even as timelines:

 
 

In this image you can see the information arranged as an outline, but here (below) you see the same information organised as a map (mirroring the actual layout of the map of those districts in a particular part of Kandahar):

 
 

Just to show you that it can handle complexity, here’s a map created by Felix to help him figure out how people involved in militant Islamism were/are connected across different geographical sectors:

It's complicated...

I’ll often use Tinderbox maps to store outlines for how I’ll write a particular section or chapter, making notes inside the document, dragging quotes in from DevonThink to supplement the argument that’s being constructed.

Getting to the point where you can actually start writing on the basis of your notes is the whole point of all of this. Technology is useful, but mainly when directed at a specific problem or goal. All the tips, tricks and software described in this post has helped me write books, reports and (coming soon!) even my doctoral thesis/PhD. I have encountered only a few (barely a handful) researchers who use their computers for this collation, sifting and discovery process. There’s no way to keep it all in your head. Here’s hoping more people start adopting these tools…

Footnotes:

  1. For many years, Amazon offered users the ability to let publishers know that you wanted to see title X or Y on a Kindle format, but they failed to make this piece of interaction useful by keeping track of what you'd requested of publishers (so as then to be able to let you know when it was finally released in Kindle format).
  2. Excerpt From: Mark Bernstein. “The Tinderbox Way.” iBooks.
  3. Selective transcript from around the 50-minute mark in the podcast audio. Needless to say, the rest of this blogpost constitutions a ‘viable solution’.
  4. Most of these are derived from other people, I should say. I try to give credit where I can, but sometimes I can’t remember where I first read something or who first recommended a particular tool or trick.
  5. Yes yes, I know, I’m going to leave out some mentions for useful software here. This is an overview, and I’m just trying to describe some options for what might work in certain situations.
  6. A clipping is when you have selected and copied a passage from the book for safe-keeping, and an annotation is when you yourself write a note connected to a particular passage.
  7. Needless to say, don’t take legal advice from me.

Sources & Methods: Podcast Follow-Up

We're five episodes old! The small podcast I started together with Matt Trevithick is coming along nicely. In our most recent episode, we talk with programmer and note-taker Mark Bernstein. Mark is the force behind the notetaking and outlining software, Tinderbox, much beloved by knowledge workers. This episode is about note-taking, its uses and why people need to think reflexively about the work they're doing.

It seems to have struck a chord with listeners: we've had three times as many as usual. That could also have been helped by a mention over at The Atlantic from James Fallows:

Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.

The Director of Teaching and Learning, for the Bedford/St. Martin's imprint of Macmillan Education publishing house wrote a blogpost about the episode in which he recommended educators give it a listen:

There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and find order. In a way, it's about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

I've added a number of podcasts to my regular queue in Overcast and in case you could use some recommendations, the following are almost always worth a listen, especially if you like the kinds of things you hear on Sources and Methods:

Our First Publication: "I Am Akbar Agha", Memoir of a Taliban Insider

I_am_Akbar_Agha-cover Very happy to announce the publication of First Draft Publishing's inaugural book, I Am Akbar Agha. Felix and I have been working on this initiative for a while, and it's nice to have it see the light of day.

Akbar Agha's book is the latest in an (increasingly) long line of memoirs by individuals associated with the (Afghan) Taliban. So far we have insider accounts from Zaeef, Mutawakil, Mujhda, Mustas'ad, Abu al-Walid al-Masri and rumours of works being written by figures like Mawlawi Qalamuddin and others.

As for what's in the book, I'll refer you to the blurb on the back:

Following in the tradition of Mullah Zaeef’s My Life With the Taliban, Akbar Agha’s memoir tells a story of war, friendship and political intrigue. Starting in 1980s Kandahar, the difficulties and successes of the mujahedeen come through clearly as Akbar Agha struggles to administer a group of fighters. He details the different groups fighting in Kandahar, their cooperation and the scale of the Soviet Union’s efforts to crush them. Not directly a participant in the Taliban government that ruled post-1994, Akbar Agha offers a sometimes-critical account of the administration built by many of his former fighters. After the fall of the Islamic Emirate in 2001, Akbar Agha was involved in the Jaish ul-Muslimeen opposition group and for the first time he has revealed his account of what happened in the kidnapping of UN aid workers. I Am Akbar Agha ends with an analysis of the problems afflicting Afghanistan and outlines a vision for the political future of the country post-elections and post-2015. Anand Gopal has written an introduction to the book.

 

If you're interested in Afghanistan and want to delve a little deeper into the Taliban's (pre-)history, you'll enjoy this book. Lots of new material.

We also published an exclusive interview with Akbar Agha over on our blog.

Anand Gopal has written a great foreword to introduce and contextualise the book. If you're interested in learning more about the book but don't know whether to commit to buying it, I'd recommend downloading the free preview/sample of the text via iBooks or the Amazon Kindle Store where you can read the full text of Anand's foreword.

If you end up reading it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads as a way of supporting our publishing initiative to get more of these primary source texts translated and made available to a wider audience.

Buy a paperback or electronic copy here: LINK

Find out more about First Draft Publishing here: LINK

Sources & Methods, or why I started a podcast

 
logo-blackjpg
 

If you go over to sourcesandmethods.com you'll find the inaugural episode of a new podcast I'm doing together with Matt Trevithick. Seriously, go there now and have a listen. You'll be able to subscribe from the iTunes directory etc in about a week or so, but for now if you want to hook it up to your preferred podcast client, use the RSS feed provided.

Matt and I wanted to do this partly as an excuse to talk to interesting people, but also out of a sense that there is a certain type of person who gets interviewed less than they ought (if at all). So here's hoping that we keep interviewing interesting people, esp those who aren't already saturating the media.

Head on over and give it a try. Anand talks about things he's never talked about in a public forum (as far as I'm aware).

An Ankified Urdu Frequency Dictionary

Urdu Frequency Dictionary Until recently I had been trying to spend more time in Pakistan's megatropolis, Karachi. As part of this move I had been trying to learn Urdu. There are a variety of excellent study materials for Urdu, but I won't write about those today. Rather, I want to offer up a resource for serious students of the language.

Readers of my previous language posts will know about Anki. For those who don't know, it's basically software that allows you to memorise pieces of information (such as foreign language vocabulary).

Frequency dictionaries are wonderful things. They present words of a language in the order of frequency used (usually in writing). They are assembled by amassing huge databases/corpora of text and these are analysed to see which words are used most often.

For a beginning learner of a language, they can be a real help. You start with the most frequently used words and work your way out to the ones you'll encounter less.

Nothing like this exists for Urdu. Or so I thought. I was passed a series of scanned PDF images of an old frequency dictionary published in Canada in 1969. This was made on the basis of an analysis of newspaper copy/texts. Obviously the language used is a bit dated, but as a solid start, this is a good selection. (For those with deep pockets, you can search bookfinder.com for "An Urdu Newspaper Word Count" by Mohammad Abd-Al-Rahman Barker but I'll warn you that the cheapest copies available are $100+ USD).

Unfortunately, in the part of the dictionary I was sent, the words are listed in alphabetical (by Urdu) order. This means that the order is not ideal. There are, however, 9,956 words in this collection. If you're serious about Urdu you could do a lot worse than learning all of them. You'll skew your vocabulary a little towards the literary side, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I had someone type up the whole dictionary into Anki and add a spoken audio file for every word. (Many thanks to Affan Ahmad for this massive labour.) You can even set Anki to deliver you words randomly served from the frequency dictionary.

So, without any further ado, the files are here. They are split up because Anki became a bit difficult when inputting the files, but you can combine them on your own computer into a single "Urdu" folder.

UrduAnki1

UrduAnki2

Enjoy! And please post any feedback below in the comments. I mainly wanted to get this out into the public so people can use it (rather than gathering dust on my laptop).

Two new co-authored reports on Afghanistan

21 Just a short post. Two reports that I co-authored have just been published. They were both finished a few months back, but they're not so time-sensitive that this will make much of a difference.

The first is for Chatham House, written together with Felix Kuehn. You can read the executive summary here, and download the full report here. The central point we were trying to get across is that a political settlement in Afghanistan must be about more than just 'talks with the Taliban'. That ship has sailed, and new realities mean it's important to bring all parties into a discussion about the future. I remain skeptical as to internal and external parties' ability to make this happen, but here's hoping...

The second report, much longer, was mainly an effort of Felix Kuehn and Leah Farrall but I contributed some things on the sidelines. This was expert witness testimony in the case of US vs. Talha Ahsan and US vs. Babar Ahmad. You can read some of the background to the case here and here. The report we were tasked with writing related to Talha and Babar's activities in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and the extent to which this equated with support for or 'membership' in al-Qaeda. Felix and I have already written a decent amount on the topic, but it was great to team up with Leah to dive into the foreign fighters' side a great deal more.

You can read our report here, starting on page 148. It's a long report, but there's a lot of new material in there which has never been published (as far as I'm aware).

I'd also recommend reading through the judge's statement Talha's sentencing memo. I don't quite understand why there hasn't been more media coverage of this trial, and how the government were more or less told their case was extremely rickety. Perhaps it's because of all the other things going on at the moment.

UPDATE: Edited on August 11 to reflect error in identifying the sentencing memo.